Months of work led up to “Afterlife: an audiovisual performance”, the performance component of my thesis work that opened the Theater Capstone Festival 2018 at NYU Abu Dhabi. I’ll be posting a reflection, and making a video and photos accessible soon.
About the performance:
Popular during the 19th century, magic lantern phantasmagoria shows were spine-chilling theatrical experiences that utilized the pre-cinematic technology of the magic lantern, an early slide projector, to create the illusion that there were ghosts in the room. These technologies and performances anticipate video jockeying, a form of live performance that emerged in 1980s club culture, where visuals are remixed in realtime to heighten club atmosphere.
A joint Capstone in Film & New Media and Theater, Afterlife: an audiovisual performance uses VJ and DJ techniques to reimagine a phantasmagoria show for the 21st century and investigate the concept of the afterlife as a state of intermediacy.
“Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily, none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the figures, here the colors, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!”
– Leonardo da Vinci on the Camera Obscura (ca. 1490)
Acousmatic: a sound that is heard although its source remains unseen
Acousmêtre: when the acousmatic presence is a voice, and especially when the voice has not been yet been visualized
“The acousmêtre…. cannot occupy the removed position of commentator, the voice of the magic lantern show. He must, even if only slightly, have one foot in the image, in the space of the film; he must haunt the borderlands that are neither the interior of the filmic stage not the procenium – a place that has no name, but which the cinema forever brings into play” (161).
“….the acousmêtre brings disequilibrium and tension. He invites the spectator to go see, and he can be an invitation to the loss of the self, to desire, and fascination. But what is there to fear from the acousmêtre? And what are his powers?
The powers are four: the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power. In other words: ubiquity, panopticism, omniscience, and omnipotence” (162).
“Why all these powers in a voice? Maybe because this voice without a place that belongs to the acousmêtre takes us back to an archaic, original stage: of the first months of life or even before birth, during which the voice was everything and it was everywhere” (163).
“The greatest Acousmêtre is God – and even farther back, for every one of us, the Mother” (164).
“Embodying the voice is a sort of symbolic act, dooming the acousmêtre to the fate of ordinary mortals…. [like] the purpose of burial ceremonies is to say to the soul of the deceased, ‘you must no longer wander, your grave is here’ (164).
Chion’s paper actually made me think about Coda, a 2015 short animated film that has won a countless number of awards. The film is as much about death as it is about birth. There is a moment where the protagonist, a lost soul transformed into his self as a baby, imagines he is in the arms of his mother who is simultaneously the transformation of Death. Death’s lips do not move but we are aware of the voice coming from this body, though the body is not a physical one but an embodied figure. Can Death be seen as the acousmêtre?
Chion, Michel. “The Acousmêtre.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Timothy Corrigan et al., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011, pp. 156–165.
“So I demand phantasmagorical films […] The cinema is an amazing stimulant. It acts directly on the grey matter of the brain. When the savour of art has been sufficiently combined with the psychic ingredient which it contains it will go way beyond the theatre which we will relegate to a shelf of memories.” – Antonin Artaud
Antonin Artaud, Collected Works: Volume Three, ed. Paule Thévenin (London: Calder and Boyars, 1972) 166-167.
If you’re a film student, you’ve definitely come across the term ‘magic lantern’ before, but likely in the context of learning about other pre-cinematic pieces of technology where, if you’re encountering the words for the first time, magic lantern gets blurred along with kinetoscope, zoetrope, other tropes, that have contributed to the development of cinema as we know today. In the context of the classes I’ve taken, I’m surprised that these technologies are introduced to us quickly, with a focus on who invented them rather than greater time spent on understanding how the technology worked, the ways in which they were used, and the stories that were created and shown. I had seen magic lanterns as being the predecessor to digital projections. In fact, instead of only looking at the magic lantern as a machine projecting an image, I should also be paying attention to the images themselves – how they were made, what they were about, the contexts in which images were shown, and the kinds of images – and then stories – that were presented. Terry and Deborah Borton book, ‘Before the Movies,’ has been a beautiful as it not only provides a historical overview of magic lanterns, with a focus on the work of Joseph Boggs Beale (1841 – 1926), but includes images of magic lantern slides as well.
And just because I haven’t mention it before and we should have some context, it’s hard to pinpoint dates for the magic lantern but it was developed in the 17th century and used until the mid 20th century, though it gradually decreased in popularity and use because of the arrival of film.
It occurred to me when I saw an image of a triple lantern, that magic lantern showmen and VJs use similar techniques and ergo a similar kind of language in their work.
“The two lanterns on top make up a traditional ‘bi-unial’ magic lantern for superimposing one picture over another, creating slow dissolves, or ‘flashing’ from one slide picture to another (jump cutting). The lantern on the bottom could be used for lantern shows (making a ‘tri-unial’ magic lantern for additional special effects), or it could be used to supplement a lantern show with the newest form of screen entertainment – the movies” (Borton 9).
The nice thing about the Borton’s book is that they underline any film terminology, bringing awareness to the fact that some cinematic techniques would have been born from the time of the magic lanterns. They may or may not have used the same language, but the technique is the same (like dissolving between images).
If we look at the Borton’s description of the triple lantern, two things stand out for me. The first being that there was a desire to dissolve between images or to flash images, both of the indicating different moods and uses according to the story. In a phantasmagoria show, a dissolve might be used to fade in the ghost, or a flash could be used to suddenly make a demon appear and cause the audience to be frightened by its almost subliminal presence. The second thing that’s interesting is that the Bortons’ suggest that the third lantern could be used to “supplement” a lantern show by playing a movie. I’m not sure what this exactly would mean or how it would look. Does this mean that there was a combination of images one would see on a screen? Will stills incorporated with moving?
I found out later, and it’s really no surprise, that the triple lantern was invented by Paul Philidor who was a magician and regarded pioneer of the phantasmagoria shows (Deac Rossell comments on the fact that showman Robertson is regarded as the pioneer of these shows, but he believes it to have been Philidor). It should be noted that his exact identity isn’t known, nor when he was born. It’s believed that he could’ve been the same person as Paul de Philipsthal, who performed his phantasmagoria shows in the UK from 1801 to 1828.
Some magic lantern slides look like what they are: drawings on a slide. The work of Beale though, has a different flavour to them in that his slides look like they could be photographs. Beale’s slides are drawn in such a way as to appear as if one is looking through the lens of a camera. The Bortons give a good example in their book to illustrate this, by placing an English slide of Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s poem Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight next to Beale’s 1894 version of the same one (Borton 52). The English slide looks flat, the image of a girl ringing a bell seen from a side view. Beale on the other hand paints a version which can be described as being like an aerial shot of the girl ringing the bell above a tall tower. He also pays attention to the mood by heightening details, presenting the bell to be huge, and painting a landscape in the background and birds in the sky to give a sense of how high the tower is, placing the girl in a setting of danger. The girl’s face is also more visible in Beale’s slide, and he’s also painted on her a look of distress and worry.
Some artists who were commissioned to paint magic lantern slides had careers in the field that were short-lived because one needed to have a style and an understanding of colour and tonal values that worked when projected (Borton 67- 69). Some slides were hard to read because they used to many dark tones (like the slides by Augustus Tholey), and others lacked detail and a variation in colour (like the drawings by Herman Faber).
Perhaps the hardest thing about magic lantern shows that were conveying a story, was designing how long the story would be. It could be as few as four slides used or as many as a hundred. For shorter slide sets, a slide might use a montage of images or might paint several scenes into one image to accelerate the story.
Aside from magic lantern shows created for presentations, biblical stories, novels, poems, etc., they were also used to accompany songs (if this isn’t similar to the work of a VJ, I don’t know what is). They were either like the traditionally hand painted slides or employed the use of photo montages. There was already a sense then of mixing content, and using visuals to help convey the story of a song.
Borton, Terry, and Deborah Borton. Before the Movies: American Magic-Lantern Entertainment and the Nation’s First Great Screen Artist, Joseph Boggs Beale. John Libbey Publishing, 2014.
Rossell, Deac. The 19 Century German Origins of the Phantasmagoria Show. Lantern Projections Colloquium, February 2001, London, UK. Unpublished Conference Paper. British Academy, London, 2001, Print.
I’m a slow reader, because I take my time reading but also tend to get distracted often, so I rarely come across a book that hooks me. Coupled with that is the terrible habit I have of beginning to read a new book before finishing the one I’m already on. And Capstone research has been no different.
Here’s my reading list for the summer:
‘The Theatre and its Double’ – Antonin Artaud
‘On Photography’ – Susan Sontag
‘Art of Burning Man’ – NK Guy
‘Before the Movies’ – Terry and Deborah Borton
‘Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees’ – Lawrence Weschler (conversations with Robert Irwin)
‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ – Wassily Kandinsky
‘What the Buddha Taught’ – Theravadin Walpola Rahula
Teoría del VJing’ – César Ustarroz
I’ve started on all of them but have finished the two that I will write about here: Artaud and Kandinsky. Having said that, I’m noticing that the benefit to reading multiple books at once, is that they all appear in conversation with each other. In looking particularly at Robert Irwin, Sontag, Artaud, and Kandinsky, one thing is clear: they’re all concerned about the perception of reality.
I had read Artaud before, but this was the first time I was reading it with my Capstone in mind. I noticed then, that he talks a lot about light. Light in its technical sense, but light also in a similar way to how Kandinsky talks about colours: in relation to the spiritual. Neither of them, however, ever define spirituality explicitly. They do so though through their philosophies, feelings, and ramblings – Artaud on theater, and Kandinsky on painting as well as music.
Kandinsky discusses colour in a way that is synaesthetic. Looking at his paintings, to some, this would come as no surprise. It took me a few moments to see that Kandinsky’s paintings resemble visuals – as part of VJ sets – that I had seen before. Not surprisingly, some animators or students pursuing the field and tasked to animate a painting, turn towards the work of Kandinsky. There’s one I’ve come across that I think is well made and stays true to the work of Kandinsky which is titled “The Kandinsky Effect”, by motion designer and director Manu Meyre (2010). Meyre takes Kandinsky’s Composition 8 (1923), dissects it, and places the painting’s elements in a three dimensional space, with each element responding to the music. This to me, looks no different to the visuals created for TSF’s video teaser trailer to accompany their EP, Time Tones (2016).
Okay, sure – they look different. Meyre preserves the colour palette of Kandinsky’s work whereas TSF strips their visuals to black and white, a common practice with VJs (take AntiVJ for example who reject the colourful visuals seen at concerts and instead create work that is in black and white). The point being, that there are ways in which they resemble each other. And we can begin to look at visuals through Kandinsky’s views on form and colour.
To Kandinsky, colour is colour and form is form. This is to say that meaning that we attach onto them comes from within us. Kandinsky loved music and he thought it affected one’s soul in a way that painting never could. Where painting was able to triumph over music, however, is in that music “has at its disposal duration of time; while painting can present to the spectator the whole content of its message at one moment” (Kandinsky 20). He doesn’t say that a painting is without a message, wherein that message could be as simple as trying to convey a feeling of the colour red. However, the problem lies within the spectator who views the painting. There is a tendency to see form and colour together as connoting something other. Kandinsky gives the examples of a red sky indicating a sunset, a red tree conveying autumn, and even the presence of a red horse as creating the sense that the viewer is in an “unreal world”.
“The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture– i.e., some outward connection between its various parts. Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or “connoisseur,” who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message. Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for “closeness to nature,” or “temperament,” or “handling,” or “tonality,” or “perspective,” or what not. His eye does not probe
the outer expression to arrive at the inner meaning” (Kandinsky 49).
One may think that Kandinsky is striving for a painting without meaning. I think though, that what he’s actually searching for is a visual art with its own meaning that is conveyed to the spectator, rather than a spectator imposing their own meaning or interpretation on the painting. This could be a meaning that cannot be described in words, but something that is instead felt. I’m sure Kandinsky would refer to it as something which touches the soul. Interesting to me is that he uses the term ‘spectator’ as opposed to observer or viewer, which then places the witness as situated in a show or event. The event may not be a gallery opening, but perhaps it is to refer to the act of viewing as an event in itself.
The question that arises then, is what is the space between the painting and the spectator? That space where meaning is either transferred or lost?
I can’t help but recall that Grotowski offers an answer to this question and frames it as theatre, defining theatre to be “what takes place between spectator and actor.” But we’ll save Grotowski for another day – who by the way, also speaks about theater in a spiritual sense (there’s a good brief synthesis by Cole Matson here).
When I first encountered Artaud, I was told to read his texts as though he was an oracle atop a mountain; that nothing would make coherent sense until one moment when he’d say something of profound value. And indeed, this is what it really felt like to read his work.
“At the apex of the [triangle’s] top segment stands often one man, and only one. His joyful vision cloaks a vast sorrow. Even those who are nearest to him in sympathy do not understand him. Angrily they abuse him as charlatan or madman” (Kandinsky 6) – these words by Kandinsky are what I imagined Artaud was like. These words were meant to describe Beethoven, and several other “prophets” in a fictional triangle envisioned by Kandinsky. Rereading Artaud, there’s something in his writings that reverberates within me. I may not understand his writings fully, but there’s an unmistakable feeling that at the same time I do understand and that’s because he writes with such a passion. If Kandinsky wanted a painting to speak its message for itself, Artaud wanted it to speak it loudly. In much the same way Kandinsky speaks of the energy of colour, Artaud turns to the energy of a gesture and what that means for the potential of a being. “A gesture carries its energy with it, and there are still human beings in the theater to manifest the force of the gesture made” (Artaud 81). On the stage, human beings have the capacity to be outside of themselves; to be otherworldly, to be extraordinary.
“That is why in the ‘theater of cruelty’ the spectator is in the center and the spectacle surrounds him.
“In this spectacle the sonorisation is constant: sounds, noises, cries are chosen first for their vibratory quality, then for what they represent.
“Among these gradually refined means light is interposed in its turn. Light which is not created merely to add color or to brighten, and which brings its power, influence, suggestions with it” (Artaud 81 – 82).
Contrary to Kandinsky, Artaud asserts that a light is attached with a colour and form, but it also carries its own meanings and associations. In thinking of my own Capstone, I’ve been so focused on the visuals and trying to figure out how to create them, that I must remind myself of the most fundamental aspect in working with projections: that projections are a source of light.
Artaud sought a bombardment of the senses (so sure, let’s put the spectator in the middle of the spectacle). He wanted theater to be reawakened to its full capacity in a way that was otherworldly, for lack of a better term. He believed that, “the theater, utilized in the highest and most difficult sense possible, has the power to influence the aspect and formation of things…. the encounter of one epidermis with another in a timeless debauchery” (Artaud 79). This reminds me of the club setting, which VJ has its roots in, as a kind of ambience that is after the hyper-real.
There’s still so much to unravel of Artaud, but there’s one quote that I’ll conclude on because it’s stayed in my mind:
“We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all.”
Artaud may have been looking for a theater of heightened proportions, but this does not mean that it is detached from reality. On the contrary, it seems as though he wanted to reawaken something within us all. To remove our complacency, and start to reawaken our senses to feel something greater.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theater and Its Double. N.p.: Grove, 1958. Print.
So it’s been a while since I’ve written here. That doesn’t mean though that a hectic semester has gotten in the way of me continuing to pursue theatre – from being involved in helping senior students with their thesis productions (we call them ‘Capstones’), to watching more shows, and reading more plays and literature. The summer took me to different parts of the world to engage in film, theatre, and everything in between and outside of.
I flew to Bangalore in India where I had the incredible experience of participating in Theater Mitu‘s South Indian Artist Intensive. By far the most exhausting but incredible experience I’ve ever been a part of, taking classes with great Masters in Kalaripayattu, Mohiyattam, Kathakali, and also chenda drumming, carnatic singing, lectures with Theater Mitu’s director Ruben Polendo and masterclasses with members of the theater company. Aside from all of this was also the opportunity to visit Hindu temples in the center of Bangalore and Jain temples in the town of Shravanabelagola in order to shape our understanding of the dramaturgy of space. While in Bangalore we also got to see Baahubali 2 in the cinema (which was an absolutely spectacular film), and director Abhishek Majumdar’s new show #Supernova with the Indian Ensemble, which explores the issue of child sex trafficking through the use of technology.
Afterwards I returned to New York City where I got to see new shows on Broadway (The Comet) and off-Broadway, inclduing long-standing immersive theatre experiences (Sleep No More). I flew off to Sao Paulo in Brazil to attend the FILE Festival, which is the International Festival of Electronic Language, showcasing works at the intersection of art and technology. In between each segment of travel I’ve been stopping in Lima, Peru which is bustling with events, including the Festival de Cine de Lima. I’ve had the chance to see the Spanish version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and a version of Shakespeare’s Othello done by Viajeinmovil, a Chilean theatre company, using mannequin heads (which was probably the most amazing show I’ve seen this year).
This summer was also about expanding my knowledge in art and technology, as I begin to pursue researching and creating my own Capstone for my senior year.
Which leads me onto what this space will include for the next few months. This site will serve – and I’m really going to make this a goal for myself – as a space for me to document my Capstone process. From taking notes, to being confused about what I’m reading, to synthesizing texts, sharing works of inspiration, and so forth. My Capstone will involve looking at the intersection of film and theatre through projections, looking at early phantasmagoria shows with magic lanterns and contemporary VJing as live video performance. On a metaphysical level I’ll be trying to gain an understanding of what the afterlife means in different contexts and cultures. All of this is in an attempt to accept or reject the notion of light as a means of disembodiment.
That’s the gist of my Captone, but of course it can change a little bit and part of the act of writing on this space will serve as an archive for that evolution in my topic, themes, thoughts, etc., as well.
Let senior year begin.